2017-08-16 / Voice at the Shore

Arava builds collaboration to solve environmental problems of Israel and its neighbors

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER Voice shore editor

Dr. Tareq Abu Hamed (center), an environmental scientist with the Arava Institute in southern Israel, spoke at the home of Cantor Harvey and Natalyn Wolbransky on July 26. Dr. Tareq Abu Hamed (center), an environmental scientist with the Arava Institute in southern Israel, spoke at the home of Cantor Harvey and Natalyn Wolbransky on July 26. Air and water pollution don’t recognize political boundaries, stressed Dr. Tareq Abu Hamed, an environmental scientist with the Arava Institute in southern Israel, who has also served as deputy chief scientist for Israel’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Space.

When Gaza dumps untreated sewage into the Mediterranean due to a damaged wastewater treatment system, it’s not just a Palestinian problem; it’s also a problem for Israelis, he noted. Likewise, air pollution created by one Middle Eastern country will inevitably blow over the borders to affect its neighbors.

“You cannot solve the region’s environmental problems by yourself. You must collaborate with your neighbor,” said Hamed, who spoke to a small group of Jersey shore residents at the Longport home of Cantor Harvey and Natalyn Wolbransky on July 26.

The Arava Institute, a 20-year-old non-governmental organization (NGO) on Kibbutz Ketura, is dedicated to building this collaboration in order to solve environmental problems, said Hamed, a Palestinian-Israeli who has been Arava’s director for the Center for Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation since 2008.

Environmental problems can’t wait until political differences are settled, he stressed. “We are trying to tackle problems without waiting for governments to take action. We try to proceed with environmental solutions regardless of the conflict.”

Arava has a “small budget” to support local and joint projects involving Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs and others worldwide. Among its initiatives are helping people with leaking septic tanks, conversion to clean energy (a particular problem for Bedouins, whose fuel relies on the use of animal waste that creates toxic fumes), designing environmentally friendly, standalone shelters for refugees, and expanding the use of solar energy (75 percent of the energy used in Israel’s Arava valley is solar, and soon it will be more, said Hamed).

Yet Arava’s most important work may be its program for educating young adults who will become tomorrow’s leaders in solving environmental problems in the Middle East and beyond. The institute offers degrees, internship programs and general classes for students, and strives to have a student population that is one-third Israeli Jews, one-third Palestinian and Arab, and one-third international students.

This diversity it essential for paving the way to future partnerships that will create meaningful environmental change in the Middle East and beyond, stressed Hamed. Yet there are also huge challenges.

“Students come full of mistrust,” said Hamed.

Rather than encouraging students to avoid political discussions, the institute addresses political differences among students from the very start. All students begin their studies at Arava with a “peace-building leadership seminar,” which trains them in how to deal with their differences and talk about them, said Hamed. This seminar “teaches students how to discuss differences and to understand the narratives of other students.”

“We try to build trust between these young kids,” added Hamed, so that they “become future partners.”

The process works; at the beginning of the semester, students from each group stay separate from one another, but by the end it’s hard to tell “who is from which group,” he said.

Rachel Ludwig of Northfield, who attended Hamed’s talk, has visited the Arava Institute in Israel, talked with the students there, and been deeply impressed. “I was really impressed with the caliber of the students attending this institute and how committed they are to solving environmental problems—and also how they live together and negotiate with each other,” said Ludwig. “I was impressed with their commitment and their ability to communicate with each other.”

Hamed said the students are what ultimately convinced him to take the job at Arava, which is on “a kibbutz in the middle of nowhere.”

“What keeps me in the desert? These beautiful kids,” he said.

Notably, the Jewish National Fund is a major supporter of the Arava Institute, said Dara Gever, senior campaign executive for JNF of Southern New Jersey, who helped to arrange Hamed’s recent talk at the shore. 

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